The Prodigy: Ashima Shiraishi
At just 17 years old, Ashima is the best climber in the world. Even more improbable is the fact that she’s still (mostly) a normal teenager.
In 2007, Ashima Shiraishi was six years old. She stood three feet eight inches tall, weighed 47 pounds—and had a mind preset for adventure. Growing up in New York City, she would often go with her dad to Central Park to play. One afternoon, as she pumped her legs on a swing set, she spied a group of climbers on Rat Rock, the park’s famous outcropping of Manhattan schist. The climbers looked like geckos as they deftly maneuvered up the boulder. The camaraderie looked like fun. She asked her father to walk her over.
Ashima attempted the easiest route on Rat Rock and fell. But then determination took over, and a new awareness. She stepped back and watched again, noting, she recalls a decade later, how “small foot movements became pivotal in aiding the climbers to the top.” She mimicked the moves and topped out. Then she did it 10 more times, back to back, with the encouragement of the boulderers in the park.
It was at that moment that Ashima became attuned to the physicality and social network of climbing. Nine years later, on her 15th birthday, she would flash the hardest route ever climbed by man- or womankind: the V15 Horizon on Japan’s Mount Hiei. Time magazine called her one of the Most Influential Teens of 2015. The climbing world swooned. She was only five foot one, still a kid with an unassuming disposition, really, and yet she had already reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Everything had changed. Beyond her immediate circle of friends, family, and climbing partners, there were suddenly expectations and pressure. “It was very subconscious at first,” Ashima says. “I feel like the more you succeed, the more people expect you to do things. But if you keep doing what you want and what you love, I feel the people who surround you will be your support.”
Since that first year in Central Park, Ashima has been climbing in a crowd of love. If it weren’t for the generous people at Rat Rock, she has said, she never would have continued climbing. “They didn’t judge me for being a little girl, but kept helping me to see how far I could go.”
Ashima began competing indoors at age seven. At eight, she climbed Power of Silence (V10), one of the most difficult bouldering routes at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site in Texas, becoming the youngest person ever to do such a thing. (In her celebratory picture, she’s wearing a pair of plaid climbing pants her mother made.) V11s and V12s—just a few grades below the hardest bouldering problems in the world—followed. And then she turned to successively harder sport climbs, like the 5.14c Southern Smoke, in Red River Gorge, Kentucky, which Climbing magazine characterizes as the “archetype of power endurance climbing.” She knocked that one off at age 11.
Part of what motivated her through her tween years was meeting the athlete she would emulate, pioneering big-wall climber Lynn Hill, in 2012. At five foot one today, Ashima is short, which makes it difficult to reach distant holds. But here was Hill, only a half inch taller than that, and still ripped and relevant at age 51. Hill told her, “You can solve things even though you’re shorter than other people. There’s always something you can do to get to the top.” Of Ashima now, Hill says, “I was impressed with the big reaches she was able to do with such grace and a keen sense of body awareness. She knows when to punch it and move fast to get past these big, dynamic moves. It’s great to see young women demonstrating such a powerful style.”
Today, Ashima is the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s three-time defending World Youth Champion in both lead climbing and bouldering, and a competitor in the Climbing World Cup adult category. She remains the second person in the world to have completed Horizon, on Mount Hiei. Her 237,000 Instagram followers love to see her dangle one-armed from an overhang. They also love her copper puffy and platform shoe style. But even when you’re the most famous climber in the world, the pressure remains, and for Ashima the solution is always the same: her people.
From the crowd that encouraged her on Rat Rock to her community at the gyms in Brooklyn where she trains, Ashima’s supporters lift her, and she lifts them. One is the actor Ansel Elgort (of Baby Driver fame), who met Ashima at Brooklyn Boulders when he was 15 and she was eight. He saw her “climbing on the highest highball, doing the hardest lines in the gym. But even though she was always the best, she was always so friendly to me. She probably knows that she’s one of the best climbers in the world—it’d be hard not to—but it doesn’t go to her head. Even when someone on their first day of climbing comes up to her and says, ‘Wow, you’re incredible,’ she’s not like ‘Yeah, obviously.’ She’s like ‘Oh, thank you!’”
Meaning, despite the fame and the pressure, she’s still as humble and welcoming as that first grader geckoing up a rock in Central Park.
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